“Is It Folly to Be Wise” by Janet Mulgannon Del Castillo (Colombia)
IS IT FOLLY TO BE WISE?
by Janet Mulgannon Del Castillo (Colombia 1964–66)
A GREAT ADVANTAGE OF BEING YOUNG is that one has no fear. Young adults are so devoid of knowledge and life experience that they have no concept of failure.
I was 19 years old when I went to Colombia, South America, to save the world. I was in the Peace Corps and President Kennedy’s words rang in my ears. “Ask not what your country can do for you — but what you can do for your country!”
There I was, in the tiny town of Buena Vista, enlightening the villagers on what latrines were for, how to construct them, and how to use them. The irony was that I had had little knowledge of where water came from or how toilets even flushed before I arrived. But I sure knew how to build a latrine!
One sweltering morning while on an errand, I heard great wailing and weeping. Turning the bend on the path, I saw a gathering of campesinos (peasant farmers) under the thatched roof of a typical hut. In the middle of the group was a simple plank table with a young boy stretched on it. As I approached, I saw that it was a little ten-year-old friend who just the day before had been playing in front of my house.
To my dismay, I realized that I had stumbled upon his wake. All around his body were lit candles in cans and on plates. His eyes were closed and around his head and in his mouth were placed flower blossoms. He was dressed in his Sunday best and appeared to be sleeping. He looked alive. As the Colombians moved aside to let me approach, I vividly remember thinking, he doesn’t seem to be dead. I leaned over to see if I could hear breathing . . . his stomach gurgled! I elevated an arm and it dropped back flaccidly. My God I thought . . . maybe he’s not dead! Maybe he’s in a coma or breathing so shallowly they don’t know it.
“He died from parasites last night,” an old wrinkled crone said to me.
“How do you know he’s dead?” I asked urgently.
She shrugged and said, “The spirit left him!”
I immediately thought of all the comic books and horror stories I had read, where people were buried alive, and when the bodies were disinterred, they found hair under their fingernails and scratches in the coffin where they had pathetically tried to claw their way out. Through I knew nothing about death and had been to only one open casket funeral in my life, I announced with conviction that there was no rigor mortis! “Look,” I said, holding up the yielding arm, “How can he be dead? He’s not stiff and his stomach is gurgling!” At that moment there was a wheeze from the boy as I waved the arm.
Leaning over him, I pressed on his chest and when I released the pressure I heard air flow! With no further ado, I pulled all the flowers out of his mouth, pushed all the lit candles away from his upper body, and tried to start a modified artificial respiration. The relatives and friends watched in stunned silence as I shifted the body around and tried to pump life into him. When I pressed his chest, and then released, as I held him balanced in a slightly sitting forward position, air was sucked in and then expelled, much as a set of bellows would respond. I tried jiggling him, bouncing him, and shaking him into life.
Nothing awakened the spirit that had gone. After about five minutes, when my own sense of urgency had started to wane, I looked up at the shocked, muted faces surrounding me.
The realization slowly crept over me that I was interfering with a ritual of death . . . and that this child was probably gone. It was then that I became aware of the gravity of the situation. This boy with his beautiful white teeth who had laughed with me days earlier, was dead. For him to have died from parasites — worms in his belly — was doubly tragic.
Generally in Colombia, if a child lives beyond the age of seven, he is strong enough to make it to maturity. Seven out of ten children died before that age in my little village. Children are “dewormed” periodically, as a matter of course, if the family can afford the medication. The environment in the tropics is very hard on youngsters. Parasites abound because of unsanitary living conditions, lack of latrines or sewer systems, and chronically humid temperatures. No childhood vaccinations or basic medical care, combined with the unhealthy ambiance, eliminate the weak or unlucky. I had believed that this boy was a survivor.
With tremendous trepidation and sadness, I lowered his lifeless form back on to the table. I tried to once again arrange his clothing on him and set up the candles around him. I gently replaced the flowers in his mouth. Turning to his bereaved mother, I apologized for the interruption, hoping she would forgive me. All of the mourners eyes were on me as I tried to retreat quietly. I really wanted to disappear off the face of the earth.
As quickly as possible, I headed back down the trail to the center of the village. Finding Padre Cedrez, the missionary from Spain, I told him of my terrible mistake. I asked him to talk to the family, to assure them I hadn’t meant to offend.
Later that afternoon there was a knock on my door.
“Missy Janet,” the Padre called, “I just wanted you to know we buried the boy a few moments ago!” He put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “By the way, the boy was definitely dead.”
“Really, Padre, how did you know?” He wrinkled his nose and said, “He was starting to smell!”
FOR YEARS I SHARED THIS STORY with no one. I was embarrassed with my actions — my ignorance — my complete lack of experience. Now, having lived for more than half a century, having had a great deal of life experience, I am not so hard on myself. Ignorance is bliss. Innocence is acceptable. Mountains have been climbed, wars have been won, and bridges have been built by people who were too ignorant or innocent to realize it couldn’t be done!
It is so easy to say why life’s challenges are impossible to do. With age, and the trauma of living, reality can be stark. Dreams are abandoned. Hearts and souls are wounded and broken down by daily struggle. We know too much about the valleys on the voyage to reach the top of the mountains.
Would I risk looking that foolish today? Would I be naive enough to believe that the elders had made a mistake? That maybe the boy had a chance to live? That a miracle could happen?
Or would I worry about protocol . . . about offending them in their ritual of death? And therefore, not make waves and chance being wrong? What if that boy had been alive? He could have been. He was dead. I was wrong. But God knows I still feel I did what I had to do at the time.
Perhaps I would be more diplomatic today. Maybe I would ask permission first to touch the child and then minister to him. I know I’m older and should be wiser. But sometimes the innocence of youth and the belief in miracles can still make them happen.
What do you think? Could it be, as Thomas Grey, the English poet, once said: “Where ignorance is bliss, tis folly to be wise!”
11 CommentsLeave a comment
This is a beautiful memoir — beautifully written and heartening to read.
I agree with Edward Mycue’s comment. Thank you, Janet, for writing with such honestly.
I’m glad you gave yourself permission to write this; amazing, sad but hopeful story, beautifully written.
Your little friend was watching. Be still now and listen to his voice thank you for loving him unconditionally – loving him enough to risk looking foolish, loving him enough to risk breaking unknown taboos, loving him enough to risk spending a lifetime questioning just to give him a chance to play a little longer.
Yes there are many stories from our Colombia Peace Corps experience we have not shared with others Thank you for sharing this story.
I had just turned 20 when I was selected to serve in the Clolombia I group. Like you I did a lot of growing up in those early days of JFKs experiment called the Peace Corps. It is indeed a wonderful country that created the Peace Corps and I hope it continues to give others a chance to “grow up” and serve.
I appreciate your comments…since Im now over 70 I think its easier to share those moments…What a great opportunity we all had, being a part of this social experiment!
I wish the kids today had more of our spirit…to save the world…to be inspired to “leave the world better than we found it!”
I read your story today, shared online.
I was volunteer leader in Narino, Huila and Tolima [May62-May64].
Where were you located? I helped settle many groups from Group 1 through 8.
I have pics of some – would be great to connect in some way – photos, stories,
Please let me know if interested.
Refugio I Rochin [WILL]
Coronado CA 92118
I just saw your comment! Sounds like you were there the same time I was. Rob (darn can’t remember last name) was my first leader and Marvin Hancock was next one in Cordoba…on the coast.My daughter now lives in Bogota so I return often. If you’re ever in Florida come on out! I train Thoroughbred racehorses and am still trying to make a difference…
I had a very enlightening time in the village…what a life experience!
Wonderful story! well told! and worth sharing!! Thanks! ken
Thanks for sharing this very personal story. It’s so well written — great imagery that takes us right back to that sad scene. A thought provoking piece to boot!
Yes, thank you for sharing. No need for shame. I think you showed courage. And you learned some important facts of death…and life. That’s what we signed up for, right?